Techno Tip #1b: A Primer on Domains and Web Hosting

internet-confusionSometimes I forget how confused I was about “domain names” and “web hosting” when I first entered the world of website development way back when.  Until you get familiar with it all, it’s a bit difficult to understand the relationship between domain names, web hosting, and the flurry of designed-to-confound-you acronyms that hang around in various dark caves within the mysterious realms of the Internet.  and it’s not just us web designers who need a basic understanding of the process and relationships.  If you’re a website owner, you need to know the difference between a domain and web hosting, or you could mishandle either and end up with no domain or a domain that goes nowhere!  I needed to explain this to a client recently, so I thought I’d capture it and save it as a Primer on Domains and Web Hosting.

First, you have a domain registrar — like GoDaddy, but there are many registrars out there.  You use a domain registrar to “reserve” a particular domain name (like, usually for about $14 per year, give or take.  You need an account with the registrar to do this.

Once you reserve a domain (“domain” and “domain name” are terms that are used interchangeably), it’s yours unless and until you let your domain registration expire, at which point (after a certain “lag” time), it goes back into the pool of available domains.

Now, a domain name is simply a “pointer”.  There are no files or website associated with a domain name by default.  So in addition to having a registered domain, you also need “web hosting”.  Web hosting is essentially rented file space on a server or server(s).  There are many web hosts out there.  The one I’ve been using/recommending for almost 10 years is Hostgator.  The actual web pages, files, etc. that are the content of any website are stored in rented web host space, on web host servers with specific server names.  When you set up your web hosting account, you’re told which particular server names your file space is on.

You tell your web host through settings in your hosting account) which domain(s) will be associated with your rented space.  The web host then asks you what domain name will be pointing to your file space, and essentially labels your file space with the same name as your domain.  This labeling by domain is necessary because most web hosts utilize “shared servers”, meaning that each server may host many different domains.

So if you register your domain with GoDaddy (for example), you log in to your GoDaddy account and tell the domain which servers (by server name) contain your actual website pages/files.  This linkage information (domain name and its servers) is stored in a giant distributed Internet database called the Domain Name System (DNS).  When a website visitor uses their browser to go to a specific domain, there’s a DNS lookup to see which servers the domain’s pages/files are on, and sends the visitor to those servers at the web host.  The web host intercepts the request and uses the requested domain name to match against the labeled sections of the servers, and those are the files the website visitor sees.  The DNS information also includes the name & contact info of the domain registrar, the name & contact info of the web hosting company, and the name & contact info of the person who reserved the domain through the registrar.  All that information is publicly available, unless you pay extra to keep the identity of the person who reserved the domain confidential.

So there you go.  Hopefully it’s a LITTLE clearer than mud.  But feel free to contact me with questions, etc.

“Tech’s not scary when knowledge tags along” SM